Tips for helping children do science
A 3-year-old picks up a green leaf off a mound of otherwise
brown and red leaves piled at the base of an almost leafless
tree. He turns the leaf over, top to bottom and bottom to
top, and says, “Poor guy, he didn’t have a chance
to turn red.”
A 4-year-old watches a handful of cornmeal as it slowly
falls between his fingers. He observes, “Cornmeal smells
like warm bodies.”
A 3-year-old points to a pile of brown leaves that had blown
into the far corner of the porch. She asks, “How did
the leaves get there?”
We may smile at these comments, but they reveal something
important. Children are continually observing, questioning,
and describing the things in their world. They are identifying,
comparing one thing to another, and communicating their discoveries.
They are doing science.
The term strikes fear into the hearts of many early childhood teachers.
For example, Ms. Okama remembers her grade school science experiences—memorizing
the names of planets and being quizzed on the characteristics of different
rocks. Filled with doubt, she thinks, “I can’t teach science to
Inexperienced teachers sometimes make the mistake of presenting
science as magic. For example, Ms. Black, shows children
how to put out a lighted votive candle by turning a glass
upside down over it. “There, it’s out.” she
says, without letting the children discover that fire needs
air to burn, measuring how long it takes to go out, or using
different sizes of glasses to extinguish the flame.
Science doesn’t need to be scary or magical. A first
step in reducing science-teaching anxiety and making science
real is to redefine it. What is science? Improved understanding
draws us to the next steps. What do we need to think about
when planning science activities? How can we promote scientific
thinking? How can we extend science to other areas of the
What is science?
For a young child, science is discovery. The word evokes an image of children using all five senses—sight,
hearing, touch, taste, and smell—to actively explore
“I do not know what I may appear to the world; but
to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on
the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding
a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary whilst
the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Science in early childhood settings refers to everything
young children experience with their senses. Teachers guide
children to integrate these experiences into cognitive concepts.
Cognitive concepts are ideas about people, places, events,
objects and animals that children encounter in their everyday
Jean Piaget, a scientist who developed theories about the
way children’s minds work, said that children build
concepts from their interactions with peers and adults, and
through “hands-on” sensory experiences with objects.
For example, children learn a great deal about the properties
of rocks by holding, banging, licking, throwing, and washing
rocks. Children integrate their sensory experiences into
cognitive concepts by learning, with the aid of teachers,
the following basic skills of scientific inquiry:
((see PDF for table))
These basic science skills have been identified as developmentally
appropriate for young children (Kilmer and Hofman, 1995).
Teachers who use developmentally appropriate practice (DAP)
regularly encourage children to use these skills. Observing,
identifying, comparing, classifying and utilizing information
are built in to many activities in a child-centered early
childhood program and take place on a daily basis:
((see PDF for table))
As a result, offering science activities does not require
learning a whole new set of teaching strategies. However,
it does remind us of what many adults have forgotten—the
world is amazing. Children know this; many adults have to
relearn it. We need to remember that children absorb nature—experiencing
it in its full glory (colors, sights, sounds, smells, textures).
Children do not take the natural world for granted. They
joyfully revel in it and willingly share their joy with adults.
We can capitalize on children’s interest in nature by creating indoor
and outdoor physical environments that are rich in natural elements. In this
way, we provide many opportunities for children to practice basic science skills.
Harriet E. Huntington (1939), in her classic children’s book , reminds us that ordinary creatures—snails, worms, pill bugs,
caterpillars—fascinate children. These creatures can be the subjects
of hours of observation and conversation.
Rosemary Althouse (1988) builds a science curriculum around natural or manufactured
materials familiar to children, including water, color, blocks, boxes, and
bubbles. Children explore multiple properties of these easily accessed elements
by participating in her science activities.
We also may find that many of our interests—even passions—contain
a science element. By sharing our interests with children,
we are likely to introduce similar interest in the children.
For example, Ms. Hernandez’s passion for growing plants
native to the area can assist children to plant, nurture
and observe a variety of native plants. Ms. Gomez can readily
share her love of unusual rocks with children indoors and
outdoors. Mr. Goya’s wind chime collection can fill
the playground with the musical tones of varying-sized wind
chimes. His collection inspires the children to build their
own chimes that could adorn the entire school. Comparisons
of the various tones would sharpen observation, comparison
and classifying skills. By offering science activities with
concepts familiar to us, we can proceed with confidence and
Planning and setting-up science activities
When planning science activities for young children, we juggle
a number of considerations. The more thought we give in
advance to an activity, the more likely that the children
will realize the concepts underlying their experiences.
Here are some guidelines:
Choose new science activities that follow logically from
the previous ones. For example, offer colored water and mixing
utensils to children who spontaneously mix different colored
Follow children’s interests when you plan science activities. For example,
build on Yeti’s interest in a pile of leaves by offering her a collection
of leaves of various shapes, sizes, and colors to compare.
Document children’s science experiences with photos, written observations,
and their own words. This documentation, described in the ,
allows us to track children’s interests and building upon previous experiences
(Chard, 1994 and Katz and Chard, 1997).
Introduce complex concepts through simple activities. Use a simple pan-balance
scale to introduce the concept of comparing weights of the same kind of objects
(like teddy bear counters). Later offer more advanced weighing devices that
require children to compare an object’s weight to a set of standard weights.
Consider whether an activity will be for an individual child or a cooperative
event. The choice depends on your goals and objectives, the children’s
needs, and the nature of the activity. Tracing the path of a marble down and
around a plastic route can be an exciting activity for two children to share.
It can also be a solitary pursuit for Melanie who needs quiet surroundings
and a way to focus her attention.
Consider how much adult coverage the activity requires before offering it to
the children. More specifically, ask: Who is available to supervise? What level
of supervision (teacher-child ratio) is needed to ensure children’s safety?
How messy is the activity? Is the activity child-directed or teacher-directed?
For example, sifting small rocks from sand is a child-directed activity that
requires few directions and relatively little teacher supervision for children
who understand that rocks stay out of mouths and the sand stays in the tubs.
Baking muffins, however, is usually a teacher-directed activity. It requires
attention to child safety, advance material preparation, and the availability
of an adult who can talk about mixing ingredients, supervise the baking, and
model interest in good nutrition when the children eat the muffins for snack.
Select science materials that are found in the children’s home environments,
objects the children encounter in their cultural, social, and physical worlds.
For example, think about cultural variations in cooking tools and dishes. When
you have children identify tools that do or do not hold water, include a tortilla
press, a flan dish, and chopsticks. Using only utensils and dishes familiar
to the children limits the amount of new information to which they need to
pay attention. Familiarity is like the branches of an existing tree on which
children grow leaves of new information. It takes less time and effort to grow
a leaf than it takes to grow a branch or tree. Familiarity enables children
to integrate new information into existing concepts, making learning easier.
“The most beautiful thing
we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of
all true art and science.”